The Calligrapher's Daughter- Part I



Book Blurb:

“Najin Han, the privileged daughter of a calligrapher, longs to choose her own destiny. When her traditional father seeks to marry her into an aristocratic family, her mother defies generations of obedient wives and instead sends Najin to serve in the King’s court as a companion to a young princess. But the King is soon assassinated, and the centuries-old dynastic culture comes to its end. Spanning thirty years, The Calligrapher’s Daughter is an exquisite novel about a country torn between ancient customs and modern possibilities, a family ultimately united by love, and a woman who never gives up her search for freedom.”

Thoughts (First 100 pages):

The title itself suggests that the story is of that daughter, whose identity is defined on the sole pretext of being her father’s daughter. She has no name. She wasn’t christened with one on the hundredth day of her birth, as the traditional Korean custom had it for the sons. There was no celebration, no festivities on the occasion of her birth or on her birthdays. She was born during the Japanese occupation of Korea and, in protest, her father, a Korean patriot, refused to name her. She was taught ways of a woman at home, being prepared for marriage- obedience, decorum, and quietude. Not to question back the elders and quietly accept whatever was being told. Rein in the curiosity and not ask too many questions. Not all things need to be known. Woman of ‘yangban’ class or aristocratic household, noble birth, should live within the boundaries of the estate, the campus surrounding the house- shouldn’t set foot out into the society.

My heart went out to young Najin (named by mistake by the Christian missionary) who tried hard to uphold all the rules and regulations set for her, to win over the heart of her father, who was strict and always disapproved of her wayward ways. She would shut up her mouth, tight lipped, even though fervent questions bubbled inside her stomach, luring it above the throat to the tongue. Her father, Han, was a very traditional and famous calligrapher, who was disappointed in his daughter's exuberant manners and wished for a son. Han believed in traditional Confucian values, enforced traditional Korean manners and behaviors in his family. Only as an adult did Najin "understand that the sweeping change of those years demanded the stringent practice of our rituals and traditions; to venerate their meaning, yes, but also to preserve their existence simply by practicing them".

I adored her mother, Haejung who took steps for her daughter to be formally educated, in the Missionary schools by the Christian maidens(nuns). Society then was slowly embracing the free open minded views and ways of the Christianism instead of confining oneself in the strict and staunch ways Confucianism perfected.  Girls were going out of their houses, to schools, to learn the Chinese character, Japanese, Korean alphabets- instead of just stopping at mastering embroidery, cleaning, decorating the household, serving food and tea to the male in the house, and reading The Four Ways of Woman- the only book recommended for women to read. Knowledge was offered to girls for the first time, and it was foolish not to lap it up. 

When her brother is born, she learns what a gift it is to be a mother, and learns the process to take care of her ‘Dongseng’- feeding him rice water and honey in the absence of his mother, swinging him to sleep, carrying him on the back while doing other chores around the house, changing his diapers, and playing with him keeping him engaged when the elders are not around. She sadly yet curiously witnesses the Christening ceremony held for him in their home compound. He is named Ilsun.

“If he grasped the brush in his chubby first, he would be a scholar. The abacus meant businessman; the brick, a mason; the pen, a clerk the nail, a carpenter; the coin, a man of wealth; and if he chose the skein of thread, he’d be guaranteed a long life. A wooden crucifix for pastor. A polished bronze signet to commemorate his scholarship, painting and calligraphy.”

She had almost resigned herself to the idea that girls don’t need to be christened. It’s just so sad. She had never seen the happiness and glint in the eyes of his Abbu-nim , Father , that appeared when her younger baby brother was around.

Korea under the Japanese occupation, the oppressive ways, the random insurgencies, arrests, the revolts, rebellions, secret coups, plans, preparations, sewing of mass Korean flags by families’ women folk at night in secret for the declaration of freedom, the chants of freedom and independence, “Man-se Man Man-se” (literally meaning ten thousand years, it is a prayer or cry for long life or reign) to free the kingdom by establishing it’s sovereignity, and supremacy, over the Japanese – to uphold the land over forty five centuries old. There was patriotism in the air- the energy and pride in spreading the word- of rebellion- the joining of hands and the dreams of a unified free nation. All from a child’s point of view made it so much more special.

Seoul and many more Korean cities were renamed Japanese names during this Japanese occupation. A glimpse of history in between the story is addictive. Gripping storyline.




 To be continued....

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